Feminism: The Problem or the Answer?

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article called “The War Against Girls”. While it deals with the selective abortion of girls in third world countries, some of the issues involved are very pertinent to discussions of patriarchy and feminism. Here are some excerpts from the article:

Mara Hvistendahl is worried about girls. Not in any political, moral or cultural sense but as an existential matter. She is right to be. In China, India and numerous other countries (both developing and developed), there are many more men than women, the result of systematic campaigns against baby girls. In “Unnatural Selection,” Ms. Hvistendahl reports on this gender imbalance: what it is, how it came to be and what it means for the future.

In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This ratio is biologically ironclad. Between 104 and 106 is the normal range, and that’s as far as the natural window goes. Any other number is the result of unnatural events.

Yet today in India there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls. In China, the number is 121—though plenty of Chinese towns are over the 150 mark. China’s and India’s populations are mammoth enough that their outlying sex ratios have skewed the global average to a biologically impossible 107. But the imbalance is not only in Asia. Azerbaijan stands at 115,  Georgia at 118 and Armenia at 120.

What is causing the skewed ratio: abortion. If the male number in the sex ratio is above 106, it means that couples are having abortions when they find out the mother is carrying a girl. By Ms. Hvistendahl’s counting, there have been so many sex-selective abortions in the past three decades that 163 million girls, who by biological averages should have been born, are missing from the world. Moral horror aside, this is likely to be of very large consequence.

Late in “Unnatural Selection,” Ms. Hvistendahl makes some suggestions as to how such “abuse” might be curbed without infringing on a woman’s right to have an abortion. In attempting to serve these two diametrically opposed ideas, she proposes banning the common practice of revealing the sex of a baby to parents during ultrasound testing. And not just ban it, but have rigorous government enforcement, which would include nationwide sting operations designed to send doctors and ultrasound techs and nurses who reveal the sex of babies to jail. Beyond the police surveillance of obstetrics facilities, doctors would be required to “investigate women carrying female fetuses more thoroughly” when they request abortions, in order to ensure that their motives are not illegal.

Such a regime borders on the absurd. It is neither feasible nor tolerable—nor efficacious: Sex determination has been against the law in both China and India for years, to no effect. I suspect that Ms. Hvistendahl’s counter-argument would be that China and India do not enforce their laws rigorously enough.

Despite the author’s intentions, “Unnatural Selection” might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion. It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of “choice.” For if “choice” is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against “gendercide.” Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s “mental health” requires it. Choice is choice. One Indian abortionist tells Ms. Hvistendahl: “I have patients who come and say ‘I want to abort because if this baby is born it will be a Gemini, but I want a Libra.’”

This is where choice leads. This is where choice has already led. Ms. Hvistendahl may wish the matter otherwise, but there are only two alternatives: Restrict abortion or accept the slaughter of millions of baby girls and the calamities that are likely to come with it.”

Ladies Against Feminism has posted this article as an example of the evils of feminism destroying women. Over and over again, Christian Patriarchy groups like Ladies Against Feminism have argued that feminism is the root of all that is wrong with our society. Hedonism? Blame feminism. Broken families? Blame feminism. Decreasing wages? Blame feminism. And here they go again. It’s so typical for them. Except the weird thing is that in this case feminism is not simply not the problem, it’s actually the solution. And yet somehow, not even the author of this Wall Street Journal article and the author of the book he reviews could see that.  

Banning ultrasound techs from revealing a baby’s sex or banning abortion are not the answers to this problem (and both would lead to heavy black markets anyway). Why? Because the problem is not abortion. The problem is cultural norms that value boys over girls. Banning abortions or banning women from learning the sex of the child only deals with the symptom of the problem, not its cause. You want to fix “gendericide”? Let me tell you how! Feminism! Make women in these developing countries the equals of men, and you would see “gendericide” disappear! The authors of Ladies Against Feminism apparently cannot see that the Patriarchy they endorse is actually the cause of this problem and the feminism they condemn is the solution. 

I’m not the only one saying this, either: An article last year in the European magazine The Economist, titled “The War on Baby Girls: Gendercide,” made my very point. The article first examined the reasons families prefer boys, something the Wall Street Journal article did not do:

IMAGINE you are one half of a young couple expecting your first child in a fast-growing, poor country. You are part of the new middle class; your income is rising; you want a small family. But traditional mores hold sway around you, most important in the preference for sons over daughters. Perhaps hard physical labour is still needed for the family to make its living. Perhaps only sons may inherit land. Perhaps a daughter is deemed to join another family on marriage and you want someone to care for you when you are old. Perhaps she needs a dowry.

You see, that is the problem. The laws saying only sons may inherit, the practice of selling daughters to another family for a dowry – it is these things that are the problem. Fortunately, the Economist article saw that, and finished by pointing to the solution (hint: NOT banning abortion):

And all countries need to raise the value of girls. They should encourage female education; abolish laws and customs that prevent daughters inheriting property; make examples of hospitals and clinics with impossible sex ratios; get women engaged in public life—using everything from television newsreaders to women traffic police.

The answer is not to ban abortion or restrict access to ultrasounds. The answer is not to blame feminism. The answer is to raise the value of girls. If China or India is worried about a gender imbalance, they need to start changing the laws and working to change cultural norms. If women are worried about “gendercide” in developing countries, they need to get out there and start a feminist revolution. You hear that Ladies Against Feminism? The problem is not feminism – the answer is feminism. And that is how to end “gendercide” in developing nations.   

I really think, though, that this spells out the biggest difference between how Christian Patriarchy views the world and how I view the world: Ladies Against Feminism and their ilk see feminism as the problem while I see feminism as the answer. 

How We Disagree
Why Does Lily Work Two Jobs while Carl is Unemployed?
What the Ruff, the Spotted Hyena, and the Cuttlefish Taught Me about Gender and Sexuality
Steve Is a Man: On Minecraft and Gender
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15654013636892916062 Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    So spot on! Have you ever read the book, "Half the Sky?" It's an amazing book that deals with things like this and I think you'd really like it. Sites like LAF (and it IS a LAF -laugh- to me) are taking our gender so far back into the dark ages with their obsession and preaching of female subordination. It's angering.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16979912092987681396 Sandra

    I'm dumbfounded that your analysis still isn't the big "Duh!" is ought to be. When I first heard about gender selection (by adopting out mostly) in one-child Chinese families way back in the 1980's, when I was still a teen entrenched in my evangelical mores, I told my class that if society didn't fix the problem of valuing women then basic supply-and-demand economics would–eventually. Sooner or later, there will be so few women that men will become expendable because women will be needed to continue the family, the nation, the species. It may take a long time if we hold out for Mother Nature to correct our stupid arrogance but eventually women will get the last laugh. But why? Why are we waiting for that eventuality? Really, people, let's not be ignorant and downright dumb any longer than we have to!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16515377305539822004 camden

    Great post Liberty! If nothing else this proves how much better the Economist is than Fox News, opps, I mean the WSJ (Rupert Murdoch owns them both now). You can celebrate the fact that Patriarchy didn't kill your critical thinking skills!What really scares me about this is that all these young Chinese men will grow up and not have wives or families, which I am afraid will make them seem expendable (I get this from having read Jason Diamond's _Collapse_) and could lead to more wars. Sighh…

  • Anonymous


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16232186225573312896 Incongruous Circumspection

    Sandy. That guy over there first!Liberty. The wisdom you reveal by this post should not be missed. I read the first half and tried to reason some reasonable solutions. Then, you turned my head abruptly and opened my eyes to the REAL answer to the issue. Bravo!Isn't it funny that answers seem to be so easy and yet patriarchy makes everything so complex, while trying as hard as it can to pretend it is easy?

  • https://openid.aol.com/opaque/5b20d3b0-9d71-11e0-a6d0-000bcdcb8a73 Fina

    It's also obvious that this solution would work:Gender-specific abortions are possible (if not strictly legal, but that's true for China and India as well) in most western countries as well, yet they simply do not happen at any meaningful rate. Not due to any strictly enforced ban, but simply because there is no reason to favor a child of one gender over the other.

  • http://biblicalpersonhood.wordpress.com/ Retha

    Amen, Liberty. I said the same thing on my blog in mid April, but you say it better.

  • Anonymous

    The really sad this is that if abortion were made illegal, many people in these countries will still find ways to get rid of the little girls, whether it be by infanticide or abandoning them. The culture does need to change. LAF just doesn't have a clue.kateri

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15528465833214550644 Katy-Anne

    You are right, Liberty, feminism IS the answer.

  • Anonymous

    Dead on! India is where I have the most experience, and valuing women is absolutely the key to fixing things there. No woman should live in fear of being killed so that her husband can gain a higher dowery, but too often are there articles in the newspaper about women fleeing from their in-laws, or worse, not getting away. This is less common in cities, in upper, more educated classes, where women are more likely to have been educated or held a job outside of the home or family work. There is a correlation! I could also go on about how dangerous it can be to be female and go outside. Men will sexually harass women just walking down the street, from catcalling to intense groping. This, once again, is significantly less common in university settings or neighborhoods where women are more likely to have been educated or have jobs or are generally more respected. It has reached a point where there are separate train cars set aside for women traveling alone and the busses are segregated, women sit in front, men in back, although this is not always respected. Something major needs to change and more emphasis on women's rights and education would fix things.So this is getting ranty, but I could seriously continue with stories about the Women's Bill, which was passed to impose a minimum quota of women in politics and about the meat market approach to marriages in the daily matrimonial ads. Intense Patriarchy as a several thousand year old cultural norm and this is what Christian Patriarchy thinks is a good idea?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03234821657523195681 Elizabeth

    Oh, the sticky issue of feminism. From the Patriarchal families I have seen, and the reading I have done on my own, it seems that Patriarchy has a very skewed view of feminism… I read a blog on "Under Much Grace" that talked about Reverse Feminism… how mothers in patriarchal families lower themselves SO much and become such lowly humble servants to their husbands and families that it reaches a point where they believe that the husbands and their families are dependent on THEM… that their husbands simply can't do anything in this world without depending on a wife and daughters to run their house and cook their meals. It was a new concept for me, but explained a lot of what I have seen in the patriarchal families around me. The women lower themselves so much, that they end up exalting themselves.Thanks for this post, you explained things to clearly and to the point. I wish more people had this "ah ha!" moment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09779444962182438901 Sarah

    WOW! Amazing! Thank you for posting this. It is so easy to be blinded by your worldview, but this is seriously ridiculous! The answer is so obvious, but because they are so set in their ways they cannot see it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Liberty

    Thank you all for your kind comments! It is surprising what you can see when you remove the patriarchal lenses and look at the world with new eyes!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00352307000387725294 Aili zai Zhongguo

    For what it's worth, the culture in China regarding the value of girls is changing. While the Western media likes to portray China as one monolithic cultural bloc, there is a huge difference between the way girls and boys are viewed in rural and urban communities. While rural communities still strongly value sons over daughters, the case is actually often reversed in large cities. There's a saying in Shanghai that goes "男孩好听,女孩好命" which basically means "A son sounds good, a daughter is good fortune". It's related to the fact that many people have started to notice that in modern China, even though the sons are "supposed" to look after their parents, it's often the daughters who actually do the job better. In terms of gender equality, urban China is actually probably the best place to be in East Asia. Female educational opportunities are more or less equal with male ones (this is actually helped in some ways by the one child policy, because it forces the middle class parents who might otherwise split their resources unfairly if they had both a son and daughter to invest heavily in their only daughter's education), women make up a more or less equal segment of the workforce, and indeed, over half of the 20 richest self-made women in the world are either Chinese or made their money in China. Also, these days any young man from the south of China accepts that he has to learn how to cook and do housework if he wants a wife. Obviously there China still has further to go in changing the culture of the rural areas, but it's hardly the patriarchal backwater that Western news organisations make it out to be.

  • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

    Right on!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16515377305539822004 camden

    Aili zai Zhongguo, Thanks for sharing! I have read this (http://www.forbes.com/2010/03/22/billionaire-women-entrepreneur-china-richest.html) and definitely agree that things are changing in China!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15528465833214550644 Katy-Anne

    I'll believe things are changing in China when they change the "one-child" policy.

  • jemand

    http://demographymatters.blogspot.com/2011/05/us-gender-balance-may-be-significant.htmlLink to a discussion of another study showing that the gender ratio CONTINUES to decline rather strongly up until the sixth birthday of girls, as they are allowed to starve or die of easily treatable conditions at a much higher rate than boys."Helping" force a girl be BORN is really no use to her at all, unless simultaneously she is ensured a decent future. Not just a statistical mark for later use by the men in a culture.